Sunday, 20 July 2014

Back in Eureka (albeit very briefly)

We are currently back at the Eureka weather haven resting after our two weeks on the Schei. Funnily enough the haven now feels more luxurious than it did previously. I am particularly overjoyed to return to my greenhouse room, which is always warmer than everyone else's. The folks down at the weather station were kind enough to offer us a free shower and laundry, So we are clean and well-rested. There has also been a change over of field workers. Freydis and Sean have returned home after some great work, including two textbook goose catches and a mysterious event I am calling the 18 goose enigma. In their stead Alan, Graham and Kerry have arrived for the third section of the field season. Here is a photo of all of us together with one of our helicopter pilots Stig. The next phase of work will involve camping back out on the Schei, but will end with us staying in Resolute where you can get pancakes for breakfast - a thought we often find cheering.


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Hatching, broken quads and mosquitoes

A fun-filled few days encompassing the full spectrum of human emotion. From the highs of catching geese throught the lows of broken quad bikes to warm still days and plagues of mosquitoes. A couple if days ago we had a break from routine in the Schei Camp as we had a helicopter flight to check the status of the nests we found and retrieve the temperature loggers we placed in each nest. On the flight to distant Axel F we also saw a wolf and an arctic fox. All in all most of our 24 nests appear to gave been successful with 4 falling victim to predation. Gulls may be the most likely cause as we found eggs with holes punched through them at the nest.
On True Brant island we saw nest where the female was still sitting but with one gosling scrabbling and squeaking in the nest trying to get under her wing. We also saw several families walking their goslings from the island out on the sea ice. While on Gerry Murphy Island the abominable yellow sludge has mellowed into spongy sand. Here too we saw a female on the nest with her chicks. So hatching success has been pretty high, although Tom noted on the flight up to the breeding islands that there were very few family groups (but lots of non-breeder moulting flocks).

Yesterday we attempted our second catch at the awkwardly named 13 goose pond complex. We were aiming for all 13 geese. Catching involved herding them from one small pond across a bit of land into a smaller pond and then into the net. It soon became obvious that we would have to get wet to get them off the first pond as they were happy to circle in in the middle of it. In the end, Sean (our hero) swam at the geese while everyone else waded in and we forced the birds into the smaller pond where it was simple to close the trap. On land the geese are quick despite their comical gait. We caught all 13 including yet another retrap!! FU White White (phnar phnar) was originally ringed at Strangford.

Alas, our beloved red quad broke down at the catch site and even duct tape could not revive it. Consequently, we had to lug everything back 10 km to camp. It was good exercise in a way and never far from being fun. Kerry, Alyn and Graham are all due to arrive in Ottawa late tomorrow and fly on to Resolute on Friday. The airstrip there has been fogbound for the last three days, so fingers crossed they get in.

Ian and Stu

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The first goslings and a Cadburys pair are retrapped!!

Sometimes when conducting fieldwork a lot can happen in a short space of time. Yesterday, myself, Chantelle and Freydis went in a trek across the peninsula to an inlet we thought looked interesting on the map. After a long walk on which we saw nothing of note except musk ox and grey plover we reached the inlet and we're ready to turn back disappointed. But then across the inlet we saw a pair with 3 goslings. Upon seeing us the adults began honking and led to the chicks into the water and then onto the sea ice. The goslings are small, grey and cute and we roughly estimate they are 3-5 days old.

Today , we attempt to capture 7 geese that we keep seeing on a small lake nearby. 5 of these birds we are sure are moulting and flightless, but the other 2 arrived later so possibly can fly. The lake is small and roughly circular with thin sea ice in the centre restricting the birds to a narrow channel between the shore and the ice. The plan is a pincer movement.with Chantelle driving the geese using a Zodiac boat from the top of the lake down towards our net in the bottom left on the shore. Myself and Tom were hiding on the shore but when the geese pass by we appear and help drive to the net on the corner. Freydis is in another boat acting as a backstop to prevent geese from swimming past the net.
Sean walks out to close the gap between himself and Freydis and we advance closing the trap and drive the geese onto to the shore into the net. At the last minute 2 geese remember they can fly and escape easily but the other 5 are caught. 2 birds caught have rings already (BTRR and ZPWB) and are a pair. They were previously caught at the Cadburys pitch and putt in North Dublin back in February. The whole process was very quick; credit to Sean for the master plan.

Afterwards we celebrate by opening our special maple biscuits. They are like custard creams but maple-shaped and filled with a maple-infused custard cream. They are by far our finest biscuit.


PS from Stu... the maple custard creams are not that great......

Schei Camp Established

Our new camp is now successfully up and running on the Schei peninsula (coordinates: N 80 07.699' W 88 10.914'). The camp comprises one mess tent and 5 personal tents. The personal tents are quite spacious and comfortable considering we are sleeping an inch from Arctic tundra on the fringes of civilization. Around the camp we have a tripwire bear fence that Tom has inadvertently tested on a quest for water. 

Near camp we found some small lakes where we saw goose droppings and footprints suggesting geese eat here. The lakes are fringed with a small green plant that looks similar to the salt marsh plants the geese eat in Ireland. There are also some areas of bog that really stand out as they are shockingly green. However, the essence of the Schei is the combination of musk ox skeletons and wolf prints that litter the ground.

Today we inflated one of our zodiac boats and myself and Tom tested it on a nearby lake. Unfortunately, one of the rollocks was broken making rowing difficult, which may have made us look less competent rowers than we truly are. In the end we adopted an Indian- canoe rowing style that kind of worked until the wind was against us. We rowed frantically against the wind but moved very little and eventually gave up in disgust and went back to shore. Nevertheless, a valuable lesson in the importance of well maintained. 


PS from Stu

I am pretty sure the green plant Ian mentions is the same as Alyn Walsh and I found in 2007 an it looks like some sort of Puccinellia species...

Also I have added some google earth maps to show where everything is:

Below is the main study area and the nesting islands around Axel Heiberg's Schei Peninsula.

This one is North Axel Heiberg with the northerly colony (Axel F)  and Eureka (on Ellesmere Island)

The las shows all of the Queen Elizabeth Islands and Resolute Base

Monday, 7 July 2014

New nest found!!!

Now that Stu has departed from Eureka it's time to give the blog some more variety with a series of special guest authors. Freydis and Sean have joined our happy team and have been busy getting familiar with the place and the local wildlife. The rest of  us have got a bit blasé about musk ox, how did it ever come it that?

Yesterday in a visit to the weather station we are astounded by news that someone (Nicholas Handspiker) has found a nest nearby. Nicholas even provided photographic evidence to satisfy the cynical. Although he's unsure of the exact location he points out the probable area. After 2 unsuccessful transects - on of which we force Nicholas to help with - we find the female on the nest. The female remains close as we measure the eggs (see pic) an even returns to sitting immediately as we return the last egg. Two of the eggs are cracked and flaking and you can hear the chicks pipping clearly. So, one extra nest and within 1.3 km of our weather haven (n=24). We celebrate by eating toast for lunch. Tomorrow our camp departs for the Schei peninsula.


Friday, 4 July 2014

Last few days in Eureka

June 27th
Now we wait. There is no safe way of getting to any of the nesting islands other than by helicopter and so the next 10 to 12 days will involve a lot of hanging around as the first nests will not likely be hatching until the middle of the second week of July. The day began  eventfully with Ian and I spotting a wolf trying to get into the shed where we have our toilet set up. I went down, bear scarers in hand, and it had made some fun clearing that up and no descriptions necessary. However, it has turned going to the toilet into something slightly more interesting and hearing a wolf howling outside while you are in compromising position does hasten the visit. The three wolves hung around most of the morning, howling  to one another before moving off up the fjord. The weather remains sunny and clear, but a stiff NW wind means it is still very cold out.

June 28th
The three wolves were back again this morning, although the toilet is now a secure building so no repeat of yesterday. The arctic redpoll that has been hanging around had fledged a couple of chicks which can still barely fly, and require frequent feeding. Still very sunny and actually quite warm out of the wind. Ian and Chantelle walked down to the weather station to get some home comforts...they allow us to visit their canteen and drink their coffee. Ian also likes to visit on the off chance that a World Cup game  will be on. 
The tundra is dried out in most places now (gone from knee deep mud to dust in ten days) and this allowed Tom and I to get the ATVs up into the hills above the braided river where we were sure there was a nesting pair of Brent geese. The gander appears to have gone and so the nest may well be too, but it was pretty disconcerting once we got up there. Mile after mile of gravel banks (just like the places they nest on the islands), cut by fast flowing melt water gullies allowing them to get to the main river (see pic) if the birds are using this kind of area, then it would explain why the nests are so hard to find. The sheer scale of searching, even the fairly restricted area here, makes it pretty much impossible, even with all the dead time we have on our hands and as we fly around Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere (which in case you did not remember is an island bigger than Great Britain) there are an awful lot of places that look just like this. On the way back down I slowed too much on one of the river crossings and got the ATV stuck up to its back axel in mud (see pic). It took Tom and I quite a bit off effort to get it out (bringing back memories of me and Kendrew in a similar predicament in Kerry when we were carrying out an eel grass survey a few years back).

June 29th
After a pretty quiet morning, I decided to walk north from the airstrip up to one of the plateaus with the hope of running into some lemmings as the film teams have been seeing wolves eating lots of them along with young hares. Summer really has its grip on the tundra now. Lots of flowers in bloom, turnstones breeding everywhere, looking much much smarter than when they visit us in winter (see pic) and red knots still doing a lot of displaying and singing. I also found some caterpillars and a cocoon of the Arctic wooly bear moth. This is the species where the caterpillars can live for seven years before they pupate, because the growing/feeding season is so short. On my return I cut through a long-tailed skua breeding territory. Adult skuas (of all species) are very vigorous defenders of their nests and one of this pair actually landed on my head as I admired the two eggs they were incubating.

The caribou/wolf biologists arrived back from their 65km hike on Axel Heiberg... not a single caribou was seen in an area where there had been many in 2007 when the last survey was carried out! But they did find a new wolf den and are considering heading back there to try to attach some satellite collars. 

June 30th
I was woken at 2am with the sound of wolves howling right outside our tent. Very hard to capture what this is like, there is a real sense wildness in the sound, and with the wind having dropped it made for a fantastically eerie experience. A distant wolf was answering them, going on for about an hour or so as they slowly moved east down the fjord and I went back to sleep. Morgan (the wolf biologist), went out to try and dart one of them, but she could not get close enough.
We took the ATVs west to Eureka sound and walked along the beach, another beautiful day (see pic). In the late afternoon I went with Morgan and her student to the base dump to try and dart a wolf. There were three of them there, just lazing around. A different group from the three we have been seeing regularly and much less approachable. The alpha got up and the other two followed and we watched them for about 10 minutes, as they moved off across the tundra, being bombed by every skua they encountered until the disappeared over the hill. 
Big highlight, the army are leaving tomorrow (there about 20 of them manning a small base next to the airstrip). They invited Tom to take any of the food they were about to ged rid of...frozen bread, grapes and they even gave us dinner, potatoes, pork and fried chicken... nice change from the rice and pasta dominated diet we have been on.

July 1st
Happy Canada day!! The army closed down the base today, which will make the area around our camp much more quiet (no more Hueys starting up, twin otters revving or JCBs reversing). The C130 arrived about 10am and they were gone by early afternoon. Morgan had asked if we would like to fly with them on a search for caribou and so we spent most of the afternoon over on the SE of Axel Heiberg. Again some absolutely magnificent scenery, including some dry canyons (see pic). After about an hour or so we spotted three animals on a slope at the side of Wolf Fjord, we landed to try and collect some fresh droppings as the team are trying to work out how the different Peary Caribou populations are structured. Caribou DNA in the droppings allows them to estimate which populations are most related and how they are linked to one another.
We spotted a mum and a year old calf as well but no more, before heading back across east to Stor Island to refuel. The first poppies are now blooming and a few of these were dotted round the fuel cache (see pic). We returned via a couple of wolf dens, the second of which was on top of a small cliff. We spotted the three wolves above us at first, one was sat in classic pose howling at the sky and as we flew over the top of it the they were all clearly bark-howling at us.

The weather station people have been building a bonfire for the last few days for their Canada celebrations, the high point of which is the 10pm polar bear swim. I have to admit that I bailed on this, but Tom, Chantelle and Morgan did it...(see pics) (essentially a run into the open lead on the shore near the base and then getting out as quickly as possible)... Ian claimed he wanted to do it, but went to put his contact lenses in and missed the entire event...

July 2nd
My last day. I took the ATV for a last look at the Creek and the fjord to the east and try to see the wolves for the last time. The first twin otter of the day appeared as I was out there, so I headed back, without running into any wolves , and the second plane containing Sean Boyd and Freydis Vigfusdottir arrived soon after. The plane taking me back was heading up to North Ellesmere to pick up some people, so we had a few hours to sit down, catch up and discuss plans for the next stage of the season. Tom, Ian, Chantelle, Sean and Freydis, will spend some time camping out on the Schei peninsula, making some behavioural observations in part to try and work out what these geese are actually eating. There is nothing for them on any of the breeding islands so they will have to come to shore to feed once the chicks hatch. They will also revisit the breeding islands in a couple of weeks to collect the loggers.
It was with a real tinge of sadness that I said goodbye, I am desperate to get home to see Katie and the boys, but I would have loved to have been able to be there for the next stage of the season as the first goslings appear. I boarded the twin otter with a group of dignitaries that had been up opening a historical site in the national park (some huts left by Peary in his great exploration of this part of the world that have been pretty much untouched since he was there).
As we turn at the end of the runway, I look out the window to see two white wolves from the plane, an alpha male standing tall and aloof, with a subordinate running haunches down, tail between its legs to greet him in an avalanche of nuzzles, licks and nibbles.

goodbye Eureka...for the time being at least....

How many of our nests will be successful? Will the chicks make it past the glaucous gulls and get to the mainland grazing sites? Will we find the moulting flocks to catch and mark? Tom, Ian, Sean, Freydis and Chantelle will be continuing to follow the geese, providing further updates until early August so keep watching this space

Saturday, 28 June 2014

June 24th
Yesterday's events meant that we really had to rethink our flying schedule. As I keep saying we know virtually nothing about the breeding biology of these birds, this is what we are up here to study and we now have the chance to collect data from a a good number of additional nests, our best estimate would be five or so nests up in Aurland Fjord in NW Axel (assuming we can find them all) with another five or six on the two islands in Flat sound. This number more than would triple our current sample size, I had said to Ian before the trip if that I would be very surprised if we found more than 20 nests, so 15 or so is not to be sneezed at. We spoke to Tim and Polar Shelf, got a price for the extra hours that a search visit and a logger retrieval visit would entail and worked out some time windows that would suit. Slots on the 27th or the 30th looked good and so it was now just a case of sitting and waiting.
Alistair Fotheringill (spelling?) of Trials of Life, Blue Planet, Frozen Planet etc fame is up here with the second camera crew that is filming for a new multi-episode wildlife series called "the hunt". They are using the Cineplex system (gyro stabilised ultra powerful camera thingy) mounted to a helicopter to try to film wolves hunting Musk Ox. This involves he and the cameraman Jaimie, waiting around until the field team (based at a den a few miles north of here) call to say the wolves have left for a hunt. So they are spending a lot of time in our tent (helicopter on standby), drinking tea and coffee and regaling us with some great tales of some of the most famous wildlife film moments (David Attenborough with the blue whales, hunting dogs, wolves killing bison etc). 

June 25th
To kill some time, we took the ATVs (not quads as I have been told by the Canadians) east to the head of Slidre fjord. We had to cross a couple of large braided rivers, which would have been impossible a week ago. Melt from much of the surrounding tundra is now waning and the snow is really only lying in deep valleys, and on the higher tops. We spotted several Brent goose parties, including some likely breeders, but no rings. We stopped at the third large river delta that enters at the top as it is fed from the Sawtooth mountains (see pic of Ian, Chantelle and Tom) as these have glaciers, which cause daily spates as the sun warms the snow. This means a river that can be easily crossed in the morning can become a raging torrent by mid afternoon. We had some lunch and spotted a nice group of king eiders (3 males and a female), before driving inland to the summit of a large gently sloping hill. The top and the west side was a massive sand dune and carved with deep meltwater channels and descending was not the easiest, but we eventually found a way down (after a few false starts). It was now mid afternoon and the rivers we had crossed earlier had started to rise with the heat of the sun. The water that was clear in the morning had turned a dark sludgy grey brown making judging the depth tricky, but we crossed fairly easily. All of the rivers and streams had turned a similar colour and we had some entertaining moments on the way back, including my ATV deciding to pack up right in the middle of a rushing stream.

June 26th
An absolutely glorious morning here, light wind and not a cloud in the sky and an almost balmy 9 degrees C. Alistair from the film team came in first thing with the weather forecast looking set this way for the next four or five days. We were just thinking about what we might do when a call came through from Glenn at Polar Shelf asking if we could move our planned flight to search for nests forward a day. We quickly got our gear together and hooked up with Bill, the pilot of the second helicopter (there are two of these here at the moment because the hunt film team have block booked one of them). Bill is also from Newfoundland, and like John has been flying up here for many years. We took off in bright sunshine and had yet another spectacular flight across Eureka Sound and up over the Schei Peninsula and Axel Heiberg to Aurland Fjord in the north west, checking the fuel caches and looking for caribou on the way. Aurland Fjord was still very much fast in sea ice, with little signs of any break up, but several of the islands were pretty much bare, including the one we had seen nests on, named Axel F by Tom (he grew up in the 80s). Axel F turned out to be much much bigger than it looked, and in keeping with the previous extraterrestrial descriptions of the landscape up here, looked like some of the photos that the Mars rover has been providing (see pic of Ian, Tom, Chantelle and Bill to get an idea). The rock is very brittle and clinkered, and over much of the drier parts of the island these small shards are arranged in a remarkably uniform manner, almost like the paving on a steamrolled road before the tarmac is added. Of course it was wet...very wet and muddy, in the low lying areas between the dry high points. There were also some deep snow drifts, which supplied much entertainment for those not caught in them.

After about an hour and half we reached the far end of the island and despite a lot of searching and a couple obvious territorial males we could not find a nest. We returned up the other side of the island and soon found our first female. On the very top of one of the rubble pavements, just over 500 miles from the North Pole, completely open to the elements was a nest with five eggs in it! With a clutch weight of around 400g, this is about 18% of the departure mass of an average female in Iceland (and this is after a flight of well over 2500km that crosses the Greenland Icecap). How on earth do they manage to do this? This is one of the puzzles we are trying to solve. We soon found a second nest on the next hilltop (three eggs this time), but despite more searching and another male holding territory, we could not find any more, so we returned to the helicopter. This was a mixed outcome, we had hoped for five nests and found two, we flew low over a couple more likely looking islands in the fjord, but no luck...frustrating...and so we started to revise our numbers down, another five or six we hoped.

The day was still clear and after about 40 minutes of flying Bill set us down on another island to the south and left to refuel the helicopter at one of the caches we checked on the way north. The island looked promising from the air, but on the ground it was a different story, it was very very wet (and of course muddy), probably only clear of snow for a few days. The only signs of life on the island were a few moss and saxifrage plants, a musk ox skeleton, some old goose droppings and two Arctic terns feeding at a small crack in the ice. We decided it would be known as Amund Minor, because of its similarities to Ringnes, icy, muddy and no animals.

Bill returned after about 30mins and we headed down to the first Island in Flat sound (named True Brant Island by Ian, for reasons that will become apparent in the next few sentences). This was the island that had one certain nest on it with the possibility of one more based on our quick fly over a couple of days earlier. We landed at NW tip just at the edge of a glaucous gull colony, straight away we could see quite a few geese on the island and presumed there were a number of non-breeders. Within a few minutes we found our first nest, closely followed by second and third (this one the female had left covered with her down see pic).and a forth and so it went on... ten nests in all!!! Including a couple right in amongst the gulls. The birds may choose these apparently risky locations, to get extra help in defending against foxes, much the same as other geese do with snowy owls and peregrines. Three of the nests had marked birds on them, including: a female (JC Red Blue) that Alyn Walsh and I had ringed on the Schei Peninsula (only a few miles away) back in 2007 and is regularly seen in North Wales during winter; TB White Blue, which was also likely a female ringed in 2009 in Kerry as an adult and NX White White, which was ringed in Dundrum, Northern Ireland. We could not believe it, particularly after the disappointments of the previous two islands. 

We then took a very short flight to Gerry Murphy Island a mile or so down the sound, where we were sure that there were at least four nests, possibly five. Gerry Murphy turned out to be an island of two halves, the first half, very much like Amund Minor, deep cloying mud and no signs of life, apart from a very old set of polar bear tracks (by god their paws are big). But soon we were upon the first nest, small red blue rings on the goose as she got off told us that this was a chick we had ringed on the Schei back in 2007. The north of the island was a series of gravel ridges separated by mud. We found another six nests after this first one, the last having another ringed bird, K6 Yellow Yellow, appropriately a Kerry bird seen regularly around the mud flats of Blennerville (nr Tralee), frequented by the island's namesake. K6YY was ringed as an adult in Kerry in 2006 making her at least 10 years old, and in that time she will have flown in excess of 100,000 miles!

17 nests from two islands and 19 in total for the day...a truly awesome (to use a word much over used by yours truly) result, bringing us to 23 study nests. Not a lot for some species, but this is close to doubling the total number of nests ever found for this population.
We checked Shamrock on the way over (but no obvious nests) and paid a quick visit to Brant Is to run a final check on our first four nests all was good and we came across a pair of red phalaropes spinning for invertebrates in one of the ponds. The day remained clear and we had a magnificent final flight (for me anyway) across Eureka Sound to the camp. A perfect end to yet another absolutely gobsmacking day.